Cross Posted At the Castle
Update: John Bolton discusses the terror alert on video
The FBI released declassified memo warning of a possible Al Qaida attack on US malls though they also caution against it's credibility. This type of threat has been made almost annually. The purpose is very apparent. The US economy is strong because consumers spend. If Al Qaida can damage the US economy, it believes it can damage our ability to project military and political power. Damaging our economy has been a primary objective of Al Qaida and like minded terrorists for almost two decades or more.
In 1993, ideological affiliates first attempted to destroy the WTC. They finally succeeded in 2001. The focus on these buildings were not simply symbolic. In 1993, though computer network systems were becoming more prevalent, financial information was either in physical files or on servers that were on the premises. After the 1993 attacks, with new technology and expanded computer network use, many companies had transferred their data management to large, off-site servers with back up tapes, building a dependable redundancy within the system.
It is unclear whether the planners of 9/11 knew that this kind of change had occurred or if it was considered important when any attack on the financial district could cause a panic. More so because the US economy had been in a slight recession for at least two years following the internet bust of 1999. Even without this recession, the attack would have and did have an impact on our economy. Over 1.4 million people lost their jobs within 30-60 days of the attack. While many have questioned whether the appropriate direction from President Bush was to "go shopping" in the aftermath of the attacks, it was explicitly meant to jump start the economy and stave off possible worsening recession or even depression in a post panic withdrawal.
Since then, Al Qaida has either threatened to attack, had their attacks interrupted or been successful against what are largely financially connected targets or represented a "strategic convergence". These strategic convergences are noted here:
Because carrying out these attacks are dangerous and operationally laborious, Al Qaida picks targets with three main objectives in mind: political, financial and psychological. The more spectacular attacks outside of Iraq usually represent an intersection or combination of the three goals in order to get the most "bang" for their buck.
Previous successful attacks included the attacks on Bali night clubs, the 3/11 Madrid bombings of the trains and the 7/7 London bombings of the trains. Further evidence of this fairly normal pattern can be seen in the attacks carried out in Iraq. Besides police, coalition and other government targets, Al Qaida operatives in Iraq targeted markets, gas stations, banks, business, electrical plants and lines, major transportation routes and other targets that represented a "strategic convergence" outside of military targets. Markets in Iraq became one of their favorite high density targets. Not only due to the number of people that frequent them, but because it damaged the economy and up the misery of the people, limiting their ability to exist.
Al Qaida has planned to use US dependency on foreign oil since the beginning of the "hot" war in 2001. In 2006, Saudi Arabia interrupted a plan to attack their largest oil refinery, arresting 172, capturing money and a large arms cache. In February 2007, Al Qaida issued another direct threat against US oil resources, prompting several countries to beef up security at their facilities. The threat to the US economy and military capabilities abroad posed by our dependence on foreign oil imports and threats to that resource continues to be very real.
Other financial targets have included the resorts in Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt as well as various tourist attractions in Morocco and other destinations.
While the FBI is quick to point out they do not have "credible" evidence that an attack is imminent and that the threats were posted on open, known, Islamist web sites that are "hit or miss" on their viability, the threats stay within the basic strategic paradigm targeting important financial points of American economy. More importantly because the threats come at a time of financial importance.
This is the holiday season when "shopping" and the money generated sustains many businesses and the economy as a whole for several months after the season has ended. It also comes at a time when the economy is starting to wobble at a precarious pinnacle. Oil prices continue to soar, the prime lending market has crashed and the stock market is showing signs of a real down turn while the fed continues to bolster it with inflow of cash.
Al Qaida has also suffered a major set back in Iraq where it's loss there represents a serious blow to their image and strategic interests. Even internationally, the Al Qaida network continues to be rolled up across Europe and the Middle East. Al Qaida has turned its sites on Afghanistan and Pakistan where they are now cornered in the last possible nation that offers protection and acceptance. It's the last front. If Al Qaida loses acceptance and bases there, they will have few, if any, destinations where they could set up such a large and centralized base for training, rest, refitting and planning.
Any other location would expose them to attack and probable destruction at the hands of the US or coalition partner (North Africa), Russia (Caucuses), India (Kashmir) or other nation as those states have very specific relations. The latest unrest in Pakistan provides them with an opportunity to gain ground and work towards possible domination of a nuclear, Islamic state. The unrest also causes a serious political conundrum for the US and continues to be a factor in the rising price of oil on speculation of regional explosions.
An attack on an external target in the west, particularly a financial or resource target, could be in the works in order for Al Qaida to gain some face after so many set backs. Including the slow destruction of their media wing through capture of their first and second tier operatives. They need a real media victory. It's likely this understanding that has Gen. Fils both projecting victory in Iraq and warning of a possible Al Qaida "come back".
On the other hand, an attack by Al Qaida during the upcoming campaigning season in the US could be a failure on their part. If they attack, they will boost the credentials of any candidate who is running strong on defense. This could damage the possibility of any candidate who is advocating a less robust approach to taking on Al Qaida and terrorism in general. At this point, Al Qaida needs the US to disengage if it is going to survive the next year or two as any cohesive operation with a centralized planning committee and large, open training camps to produce the fighters necessary to take on the US in Afghanistan or work against other allies in the region.
However, it would be inappropriate to dismiss these threats against the malls because they have not happened in the past when other similar threats were made. At least on two occasions, planned attacks on malls in the US and Britain have been thwarted. Many point to the seeming disconnect and "self starter" apparent franchising of these individuals and groups, placing them outside of Al Qaida central control or planning. However, most of the individuals have turned out to have attended terror training camps in Pakistan or associating with others that have.
While each attack or threat on these financially important structures is not necessarily centrally planned or directed, they all follow a similar pattern. Pointing to the probability that terror training camp includes instruction on choosing appropriate targets to make the best impact. Thus, adhering to the central strategy of Al Qaida, even if the plan doesn't come straight from Zawahiri or Bin Laden.
The big attack in Afghanistan was certainly a media making moment and included an attack on a manufacturing plant (economic structure) that provided a huge number of casualties for a psychological effect. For nations such as Canada and Germany where involvement in a "hot war" instead of peace keeping is a hot topic of public debate, it can have a serious impact on national decisions. For the US, it simply re-states the necessity to maintain force and redouble efforts in the midst of this strategic shift.
Yet, the attack also had negative connotations for Al Qaida which is why it and the Taliban are trying to distance themselves from the event by denying involvement. Al Qaida has a strong history of evaluating past mistakes and trying to correct them in future strategies and tactics. Zawahiri had written in "Knights Under the Prophet's Banner" that one of the things that precipitated the fall of armed resistance from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was an attack on a government official that resulted in the death of a young Muslim school girl. This had turned public opinion against them.
The experience in Iraq must also be evaluated from their point of view since the repeated attacks on civilians, the oppression, torture and rape, among the many problems for Al Qaida, is what eventually saw their acceptance among the population of Iraq destroyed and their fighters driven out of various previously protected enclaves. The death of 59 school aged children at the hands of Al Qaida or the Taliban could end up being the event that makes them personas non gratis.
This doesn't preclude any attack on the west. Our current situation and Al Qaida's precarious situation may make an attack on the west at this time a strategic must for Al Qaida.